Halpin Partnership joint-CEO and Higher Education fellow Susie Hills reflects on the legacy of a good leader and why knowing when to leave holds the key…
The strongest leaders bring about transformational change in the organisations they lead. They set out a clear vision and motivate the teams they lead to believe in the vision and deliver impact. They demonstrate their values in the way they work and the results they aim to achieve. Such leaders earn the loyalty and respect of those who work with them and usually attract people to work with them who share their values. They create an atmosphere which empowers team members to succeed, achieve and be themselves. They do this in myriad ways. Their success has been analysed and written about at length. Walk into any bookshop and there will be a whole shelf-load of books on the subject.
If you google the topic there will be a whole host of lists which try to sum up the qualities of a good leaders, they variously include words like….
Focus, Commitment, Purpose, Strategic, Integrity, Honesty, Awareness, Empathy, Communication, Passion, Positive Attitude, Optimism, Enthusiasm, Intuition, Innovation, Creativity, Inspiration, Confidence, Delegation, Decisiveness
I am sure many of us are lucky to have worked with leaders who demonstrate these qualities. It is a joy to be part of a team which has been led well and has delivered great impact. We also will have also seen leaders arrive and leaders leave. And, indeed, we ourselves will have arrived and left! We will all have seen leaders leave on the crest of a wave, applauded by their colleagues, but may also have seen them leave under a cloud with no-one mentioning their name (or at least not in the way they hoped and perhaps deserved).
Leaders leave. No matter strong a leader one is and however much value you bring, you will not be the leader forever. So how do you decide when it is time to go? How do they know when the time is right for them or the organisation? How do you judge when you have had the most impact and when you are ready for their next challenge? How do you ride the crest of the wave and not leave through the back door?
Ideally you should own the timing of your departure by determining when you have had maximum impact. Understand when your impact is in danger of diminishing – when you have done ‘your bit’. You may have been the perfect leader for a particular chapter of an organisation but might not be the best leader for the next chapter.
We all need people around us who can help us judge when the time is right to move on, when ‘our job is done’.
Some leaders find this guiding voice in the Chair of their board. The Chair can be the person who helps the leader to identify when they have had maximum impact. However, non-execs might not be close enough to the organisation to see when impact is diminishing or when a different approach may be needed.
Perhaps then it’s those closest to the work – their senior teams. Could leaders have their departure date ‘on the agenda’ from the start? Could they be bold enough to say, to their teams, ‘am I the leader we need for this next part of the journey?’ Do their colleagues trust them sufficiently to be able to be frank and support them to make the right decision about their tenure? Do they seek 360-degree feedback from colleagues to inform their views as to whether they are having the right impact.
We all understand the concept of ‘succession planning’ – growing talent to fill future leadership positions but we often don’t know when those successors will be needed or proactively manage the leaving process. If we added ‘departure planning’ into our repertoire as leaders we might find ourselves thinking about our role and that of our team members in quite different ways. Given that we will all leave sometime for some reason let’s lay out a route-map to our departure from the outset. We can probably make an educated guess as to how long we might be in an organisation and why we might leave and can therefore consider what we want to achieve in that time and how our impact would be visible at the end of our tenure. Clearly the date and reason for our departure might change but if we never even lay out a plan where does that leave us?
Asking “what do I want people to say about me when I leave this organisation?” is key. We can ask this of others not just ourselves. We can ask this of those who recruit us, “When I leave what will you want to be able to say I did for this organisation?” and those who work with us.
Once we have a clear picture of the answer, “when I leave people will say xyz about the impact I had and the way I lead”, we can use this as a litmus test throughout our tenure. Asking ourselves periodically “how close am I to hearing people say xyz?” or indeed “is it still possible for me to achieve xyz’. If we listen carefully to the answer we may be able to leave riding the crest of the wave, having had the most impact we can and looking forward to our next challenge.
Of course, sometimes it might not be possible to ride the crest of the wave. Perhaps achieving xyz is simply not possible. This might be through fault of our own (a mistake or decision we regret) or through forces beyond our control (an external change which impacts our organisation) however we can still own our decision to leave and be true to our own values. We can be honest with ourselves and others and say, “I came here to achieve xyz and it is no longer possible for me to do so.” We might not leave with colleagues applauding our success but they will applaud our integrity and in the end, that is all we have that really matters.